Facebook is a great way to keep in touch with your extended family members — and receiving unsolicited, outdated, bigoted opinions every time you log in. It’s enough to make you bloom an ulcer. But might I suggest a different tactic? Instead of ranting or allowing yourself to get drawn into arguments, why not poke their narrow minds with gleefully mischievous photos and posts of your little cherubs?
Take the issue of toxic masculinity. In important areas like presidential politics, software development, and stand-up comedy, toxic masculinity is screwing things up for everyone and making a lot of people spew some vitriol. You — and your son — can be part of the solution. So, I’ve comprised a list of ideas for posts that will leave your father-in-law or friend-of-friends from high school sputtering into their oatmeal about “the way things used to be.” Oh, and in addition to infuriating your social media acquaintances, these activities will also lay a strong foundation for the development of an emotionally intact, supportive, and self-confident young man.
1. Read Him Books About Girls
When my daughter was little, we read her tons of picture books. The Ladybug Girl series were some of her favorites — and some of mine, too. I wanted her to be exposed to stories that featured female protagonists overcoming challenges. The Paper Bag Princess is also a good choice for this purpose. When my son came along, he inherited his sister’s library. Even though we were gifted many books about trucks and trains, we kept the books about girls on heavy rotation. The thing is, as important as I thought it was for my daughter to hear about girls taking charge, it’s even more important that my son hear the same message. The world is full of stories about dudes saving the day. Those stories are culturally powerful. When the hero-dude narrative gets upended, some people lose their shit. Dads: Don’t let your boys grow up to be the kind of people who rant about movie casting decisions.
My son is old enough now that picture books don’t hold his attention, so he’s moved on to his sister’s hand-me-down chapter books. First, we read about the misadventures of Bink and Gollie. Then we moved on to the Magic Treehouse series. Pretty soon we’ll introduce him to Ramona Quimby. Beverly Cleary has said that she loved writing about Ramona because she never reformed, never learned to be “a better girl.” As a parent, I could stand a stitch more reformation. As a reader, I love that Ramona refuses to be tamed. I know my wildass of a son will love that, too.
2. Throw Nail-Painting Parties
About a month ago, my wife decided to paint her nails. She does that twice a year. On this occasion, she invited our daughter to have a nail-painting party. When our son asked to join in, she said, “Absolutely!” They gathered cotton balls and little jars of polish. They took off their socks and wiggled their toesies. Our boy was so excited. It was precious. As far as he was concerned, this was 3D coloring.
He chose blue for his fingers and red for his toes. He got compliments all over the neighborhood — even at the wading pool last weekend. He didn’t think of it as doing something girly. He thought of it as joining in with a family activity.
Me and the two cats, we didn’t participate. I can’t remember what I was doing. Maybe I was busy changing the oil in our car or sharpening the chainsaw. Definitely not grocery shopping. I would have joined in if I had been home. I used to paint my nails frequently. The last time was probably back in high school. I’d like to tell you I used black nail polish because I was sad about Kurt dying, but I’m pretty sure it was sparkly silver because I liked the color.
An unintended — but delightful — side effect of my son’s blue fingernails: He became super focused on keeping them looking nice. That meant no more digging through the mulch with his fingers and no digging into his nostrils for juicy boogers. Sure, he asked for more snacks because his favorite one was no longer available, but I was happy to accommodate him.
3. Let Him Grow His Hair Out
I can’t believe this is still a sore spot for some people, but it is. A good friend of mine catches crap from his dad because his son’s hair is shoulder length. The kid has a thick, beautiful mane. He looks rad! Like he just signed a deal with a boutique record label! Like he’s gonna blow his royalties on juice boxes and Bubble Yum!
I used to have hair like that, but I buzzed it off when too much of it turned gray. I miss those sun-kissed waves every day. In my mind’s eye, I looked like a goddamned lion, like Simba. If Simba wore headbands and barrettes. When we moved to the Left Coast, I celebrated by calling a moratorium on the cutting of my son’s hair. It grew wild and sentient. We’d wash it at night, brush it out, and while he slept, his hair would rearrange itself into daring, gravity-defying modern art sculptures. The hair chose a different form of expression every night. He was letting his freak flag fly, and I couldn’t have been happier. A boy’s hair should always be a crazy mess because boys are crazy messes. They can go high and tight when it’s time to clock in at work the first time.
Over the summer, my boy got shy about his curls. He wants his hair “smooth” now. I suppose I’ll have to live with that. He does have blue fingernails after all.
4. Sign Him Up for Dance Class
My son’s favorite day of the week is Tuesday. That’s “Dance Day” at his preschool. The boy loves to dance. He loves to rock it to the bang bang boogie, to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat. If you come over to our place for dinner, chances are you’re gonna have to get down during the after-dinner dance party. Hope you like Flo Rida.
In the culture of my upbringing — white, Midwestern — people with penises do not dance, no matter their age, no matter the occasion. A dude may shuffle awkwardly in a circle during his senior prom, during his wedding reception, and during his daughter’s wedding reception. More often than that, and people begin to talk.
My wife, on the other hand, was reared in the dirty South and weaned on Prince songs. This may save our boy.
The next step is to get him signed up for a class or two. His sister took ballet for several years. There was a boy in her group only once. My son is a little too, uh, informal for something as rigid as ballet. I’m looking for something close to “The Tasmanian Devil’s Approach to Hip-Hop.” Here’s hoping someone offers it.
5. Attend Musical Theater
Long ago, we took a chance. It’s a chance parents take every weekend: buying tickets for an event your kids may hate. This particular event was a musical about the life of Winnie the Pooh. Taking that chance paid off. Our son loved that performance so much that he still talks about it years later.
Since then, we’ve been to musicals about Frog and Toad, and about Shrek. He’s on the edge of his seat the whole time, except when he’s throwing himself backward in his chair, laughing his ass off. He likes the pratfalls, of course. But he loves the tunes. Something about two costumed characters lifting their voices together captures his imagination in a way nothing else does. The only reason I bought tickets to Shrek is because he hounded me about it for weeks.
Now he’s begun to narrate his own life in song. He ain’t a half bad songwriter. Recently, we were taking a manly hike through the forest, communing with the awesome power of nature, and he was bored. He asked when we’d be done, and I told him, “soon.” He made up a tune on the spot, about wishing that “soon” would be “now.” I grinned. My heart melted, and I no longer felt the primal urge to wrestle a bear.
6. Go to Women’s Sports and Cheer Hard
Whenever we watch a game, my son wants to know: Who are we rooting for? He doesn’t care what we’re watching. He just wants to know when to cheer. I love this approach to life! He’ll lock in on anything competitive once he knows who the good guys are. His adaptability makes life so much easier for me.
Anyone who’s ever tried to take a child to a professional sporting event knows what I’m talking about. Before you even enter the stadium, you’ve spent 70 minutes getting there and 40 bucks parking there. Your kid will demand shitty expensive stadium food, and then need to traipse to the bathroom no fewer than three times, which turns out to be a relief since your seats are next to a guy who’s decided to spend his Saturday afternoon calling LeBron a fucking cocksucker. It’s infinitely more enjoyable to stay home.
But sometimes, you gotta smell the grass, you gotta hear cleats ripping through turf, you gotta stand up and do the wave. Sometimes you gotta be there.
When you’re watching with kids, there’s no better in-person competition than women’s college sports. Softball, soccer, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics. We’ve seen them all. They’ve all been great! Just because ESPN isn’t in the house doesn’t mean the level of competition is lacking. It only means that some group of suits someplace decided that the demographic buying Axe body spray isn’t interested in women’s soccer. So it’s not on TV. Thank goodness — that means it’s great in person!
Tickets are affordable. Concessions are modest. The fans are dedicated and engaged. Don’t like your seat? Move someplace else. After the game, your boy will have no trouble meeting the players and getting a few autographs. It’s a push whether my son was more impressed with the autographs or the giant foam No. 1 finger we bought him. You can dig a lot of boogers with a finger like that.
7. Talk About His Feelings
LEGOs, plastic train tracks, card games, backyard baseball. They all push my boy over the edge. The damned LEGO tower tumbles down, the damned train tracks won’t snap together the right way, someone lays down a damned draw-four when he’s holding uno, he whiffs eight damned times in a row at lazy underhand pitches. The result is the same in each instance: He groans, screams, and throws whatever is pissing him off.
I feel you, buddy.
The urge to smash a thing to bits is fueled by hormones and fulfilled by muscle mass, overridden only by frontal lobes and emotional intelligence. The strength and hormones arrive early. The brain power and empathy dally. For a dude, no matter his age, it’s a scary thing to say, “I’m sad that I lost,” “I’m disappointed that the sculpture I made for you fell apart,” or “I’m so frustrated that I can’t swing the bat the right way.” I know from personal experience. To speak that way feels as though you’re exposing your soft belly to the world, inviting its blows.
And yet it’s necessary to speak that way in order to avoid a Unabomber’s existence. People don’t enjoy hanging out with a jackass who destroys whatever angers him. All dudes realize that at some point in their lives. Each has to decide what he’s going to do about that realization.
My boy is little. I don’t expect him to master talking-not-smashing next month or next year. He’s just learning. Hell, I’ve been working on it for nearly 40 years. It takes a good, long while, unlearning the lessons of the Neanderthal brain. It’s something we’re working on together, he and I. Like that hike in the woods I mentioned earlier. Maybe he’ll write a musical about this journey, too.
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